Reviews

Representation in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Having heard positive things about BMAG, I took a fairly spontaneous trip to Birmingham this week. I made all manner of delightful discoveries in my short time in the city; the 99p baguette and the striking architecture (as well as the expansive shopping experience) of the Bullring to name a couple. However, the museum and gallery really was the icing on the cake with such a wealth of diverse exhibits and contributions from quite a lot of female artists which is always refreshing. The exhibit that ultimately caught my eye and has made a huge impression on me was the new photography from the Middle East. Taken in the last couple of decades, the pictures seek to challenge common perceptions of predominately women, as well as provide an expression and celebration of multiculturalisms that have arisen from trade and immigration.

Shadi Ghadiran, ‘Qajar’ (1998)

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Although the photographs in the Qajar series look archaic, the modern commodities featured in them establish their fairly recent composition. The pictures juxtapose the women’s public role (the historic aesthetic perhaps emphasising the ubiquitousness of equally historic traditions and propriety) with private aspirations. Here, the use of modern sunglasses and a ‘Vogue’ pose might challenge these traditional roles for women, as well as challenge the presentation and perception of women in the Middle East.

Similar themes are reflected in Hassan Hajjij’s ‘Jama Fna Angels’ (2000); the Moroccan women pictured are undeniably glamorous and look tall and powerful – indeed, the concrete walls surrounding them begin to crumble. Framing the picture are world renowned Western brands fused with Moroccan culture, representing the coming together of two cultures.

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Another exploration of multiculturalism is Youssef Nabil’s ‘The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields’ (2006)

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In this condensed example of the work, Nabil explores the settling of Yemeni sailors in South Shields in the early 1900s who made the first Muslim community in the UK. In the portraits, the men’s clothing unites traditional Muslim and 20th century English dress, as a celebratory expression of multiculturalism.

It was a real surprise to stumble across this extraordinary and thought provoking exhibition which continues to resonate. I would highly recommend investing a couple of hours in BMAG – this exhibition runs until 2nd November 2014.

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Reviews

Maleficent: A brief, feminist glance

Be aware, this review WILL be LITTERED WITH **SPOILERS**, so avoid if you don’t want any of the plot revealing.

I approached Maleficent under the impression that it would manifest itself as the latest in a new Disney trend of alternative (though somewhat apologetic) retellings of fairytales to atone for the chauvinist twaddle of the 20th century. The film is akin to the likes of Princess and the FrogTangled and Frozen, all of which contain at least one female lead who maintains an active role throughout the plot in a bid to challenge her Disney original. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I was ready to have my socks knocked absolutely off by a tidal wave of subversive genius. And yes, in some ways the film utterly delivered; in others, there were shortcomings and missed opportunities.

There are many aspects of Maleficent that demand our praise. We are presented leading female characters whose presence monopolises the duration, and whose stories form the plot. Indeed, Disney artistically expresses its awareness of the damaging themes of their earlier fairytales by having Maleficent’s wings clipped by a man who lets his ambition rule him. Metaphorically, this suggests that the patriarchy figuratively clips the wings of women, stripping them of power, authority, independence and identity – an act performed symbolically in the majority of Disney classics. Equally, regaining her wings at the end of the film allows the restoration of all those qualities as well as the restoration of harmony in the world of the film, boldly stating that existence is healthier and just for us all when women are empowered.

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Disney dismisses the bonkers notion of “love at first sight” in the awakening of the princess Aurora. Having spent years acting as a distanced guardian to the child she’d cursed, Maleficent grows to love the princess, establishing a maternal relationship with her when Aurora reaches her teens. Consequently, only Maleficent can bestow “true love’s kiss” on Aurora to alleviate her own curse; it’s truly wonderful to witness Disney exploring the value of love which has had time to develop naturally and believably, rather than hammer home the fabricated “necessity” of idealised, heteronormative, young, romantic love.

Conversely, there are problems with the kiss. The young prince is reluctant to kiss Aurora; he acknowledges her beauty but asserts that love is impossible having only met her once. All the same, when urged by Aurora’s three failed guardians to kiss her and despite being very uncomfortable, he acts without her consent. For me, this is lad culture at work; being coerced into performing an evasive or disrespectful act in order to conform, avoid chastisement or attain a certain image. To a young audience, this legitimises force and being forced, especially since the intentions of the the prince and the guardians were basically good (although the guardians were more concerned with saving their own skins having failed to shield Aurora from the curse). In a modern context, Aurora is unconscious at a party and assaulted by an older man as a result of pressure from his friends – this is utterly inexcusable, so why isn’t this made clear in the film? Indeed, the scene would have been so much more powerful had the prince refused to kiss her.

One might also argue that Disney’s exclusive switch in focus from Aurora’s story to Maleficent perhaps wasn’t entirely just or necessary. In both versions, Maleficent is a active character, empowered both by her evil and her heroism. Unfortunately, Sleeping Beauty’s lot never really alters. Despite growing up outside the influences of patriarchal society, she is still a passive character haunted by an impending doom against which she cannot defend herself; she doesn’t save herself, she has no influence over the direction of the plot, she’s to some degree incarcerated and is embarrassingly naive. When comparing the Sleeping Beauty to Maleficent, it’s disheartening to witness no change in one important essential – though the active does remain active, so too does the passive remain passive. The film is subversive, just not subversive enough. Despite her fate being in the hands of Maleficent rather than the patriarchy, once again we witness a beautiful, powerless aristocrat with no control over her own destiny.

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Reviews

King Louis XIII’s face is the best thing about ‘The Musketeers’

The latest  Sunday drama to emerge onto our screens falls under the category of programming the BBC have always just seemed to be really good at. With legendary historical figures, wacky yet predictable plot lines and questionable costume, The Musketeers, for me, unearths memories of Merlin and Robin Hood: plots manipulated to appeal, Maid Marion’s spotted cardi which might have been from Cath Kidston and that unforgettable scene in which a character rocks up in modern cargo trousers and military boots. It’s easy to criticise the almost insultingly simple sequences of events, the frequent cliché and tendency to cast stereotypical roles (and man of ethnic minority in control of a criminal underworld? A tight-bodice-wearing, feisty housewife that doesn’t always need a man to rescue her except when it’s sexy? Come on, BBC) not to mention the less than stellar acting. However, Sundays still find me dropping everything to snuggle down and watch The Musketeers of a Sunday night, and not just because I am Beeb til I die…

  1. The show does not command my constant and unwavering attention. As much as I love the more complex, red herring ridden and fast paced story lines of shows like Sherlock, it’s not the kind of thing that chills me out before another week of study and lectures begins. What I’ve noticed with The Musketeers is that the storyline genuinely becomes absolutely clear after around ten minutes in, meaning you can get on with more important things during – replying to emails, catching up in some reading, finishing that piece of coursework that’s due in tomorrow – whilst still being able to enjoy frantic glances at pretty, heavily colour corrected moving images to make sure you’re still on the right lines.
  2. You can play a great number of games in the duration of the show. My personal favourites being how many times will the word “musketeer” be uttered in this episode? And how many characters will be subjected to superfluous deaths? Another good one is spotting deliberate focus on what appear to be throwaway shots of objects/people who will (inevitably) become significant later in the episode.
  3. Hilarious Costuming. It’s genuinely like throwback to 2006 and Robin Hood. Not hoodies this time, but weirdly strapped dresses which are startlingly modern, as well as hair loosely styled on Miley CyrusScreen Shot 2014-03-03 at 17.25.54
  4. King Louis – preened, petulant and pea-brained, this young man is a truly, hilariously, dreadful king. The upside is we can have a jolly good giggle at his policies, pitiful attempts at wit and endlessly expressive face.We have the thoroughly cheesed off Louis
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    The I’ve-just-cracked-an-excellent-joke-about-melons-Louis
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    The weeping-pout Louis
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    The well-formed-conclusion-making Louis
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    And the fuck-you-I’M-France Louis
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    The Musketeers is by no means challenging telly, but I don’t think I would enjoy it half as much if it was. It doesn’t stress you out with awkward cliffhangers, nor does it make any bold or obscure statements about the world to leave you baffled or pensive before bedtime. Rather, it gives you a nice, clear, well-rounded narrative with a healthy dose of closure at the end. As well as a trailer from which the plot of the next instalment can be pretty well conjectured, so you’re not dithering about waiting for next week. The perfect recipe for a solid eight hours. Lovely.

    Bonus Louis: the you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-screw-you-Cardinal-Richelieu-I’m-going-to-my-chamber
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Reviews

The Hallé, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, 27th November 2013

(My first attempt at reviewing a concert. NB my musical knowledge goes as far as Grade 5 theory and an AS Level. So relatively limited.)

With a highly varied programme of classical gems and a live broadcast on BBC Radio Three, the Hallé’s flying visit to Nottingham was certainly not to be missed. Indeed, the anticipation was tangible as a practically full house applauded conductor Markus Stenz taking his position at centre stage.

The very slightly hiccupping slow introduction to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in which a couple of the entries were fractionally dis-coordinated was more than made up for by the subsequent refreshing, fast paced and throughly enjoyable four movements. The orchestra made fantastic use of dynamics allowing for a high degree of expression; this was particularly effective in the second and fourth movements. My only criticism would be that the third movement was a little fast for my taste; however, it was supremely accurate and well executed (perhaps I could do with broadening my horizons to embrace the pace.)

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9, characterised by its long trills, revealed Lars Vogt as a clear master of his instrument. This piece is particularly enjoyable for its juxtaposition of two, fairly rapid major movements with a more sombre minor one sandwiched between. This piece is charming both for its call and response texture and for the points at which strings and solo instrument blended together – something the Hallé did flawlessly not just in the Mozart, but throughout the programme.

The second half accelerated dramatically into the latter end of the Romantic period with much expanded brass and percussion sections and two highly animated pieces by Strauss, Don Juan and Til Eugenspiegels Lustige Streiche. These two pieces have clear narratives, which was reflected in how gloriously varied they were in their instrumentation, range of dynamics, melody lines (particularly in the bold and deliberate brass) and contrapuntal texture; it had us on the edge of our seats. Just before the end of the latter of the aforementioned pieces, the finale, there is a wonderful interlude in the strings which seemed to reinstate the contrast between the two halves of the programme and demonstrate how the use of the strings in the orchestra developed through time.

A tremendously thoughtful programme which was thoroughly entertaining, hugely varied and supremely well played. I highly recommend listening again on iPlayer!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03j9x55

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Rants, Reviews

Women before the lens: Miss Representation and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Let’s not beat about the bush; as far as women in the media go, you’re heaps more likely to get an eyeful of boobs rather than brains. It seems that every single and facet of the media is fascinated by the female body and sexuality, deeming it acceptable to present it as a commodity to be bought and sold by the masses. Sadly, the Women’s Network’s screening of Miss Representation, a documentary which explores the representation of women in American media, only cemented these the ugly truths about modern media, and it’s safe to say I left the SU’s Hub feeling disturbed, angered and vicariously violated.

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It was profoundly affecting to have the powerful brain-washing effects of today’s media unveiled before us, which normalise the implication that a woman’s worth is decided by whether or not she is wanking material – a worth defined by unattainable, inhuman standards thanks to gals’ best pal: airbrush. It was shocking to discover the extent to which I, as a female viewer, had been exposed to the objectification of my own sex yet had somehow missed a trick; so customary is the ubiquitous focus on the female body that it actually took *watching* the documentary for me to fully appreciate what I’d been unconsciously condoning for years and years. The insight was remarkable, but shaming. I couldn’t believe how naïve I’d been; I couldn’t work out of I was at fault for being too ignorant to recognise some of the more minute details, or if the white, male, degree-boasting over 35s who run this TV shit were by showing me my fellow women as commodities since my birth.

Because that’s all we get as youngsters, isn’t it? Even our beloved animated Disney films subject their female characters to being perceived as helpless, beautiful dependants – hell, in my favourite childhood film, The Little Mermaid, the female protagonist doesn’t even have a voice for half the time. It’s also pretty unsettling that Ariel is silenced by a fellow woman, which reinforces a scary notion that women can be oppressors of their own female peers, or even themselves. Miss Representation touched on the idea that women are guilty of criticising other women on the grounds of their appearance, be it in conversation, journalism, news or comment broadcasts which reflects patriarchal conventions; it seems that we too are preoccupied by how old our peers look, how much weight they’ve put on, the amount of make up their wearing. Miss Representation calls for women to be more supportive of one another’s accomplishments, in the hope that it catches on.

What’s more, the handful of supposedly emancipatory protagonists – I’m thinking Lara Croft, Catwoman, Andy in The Devil Wears Prada – in the end are just extending this inexorable pursuit of female beauty; Miss Representation introduced me to the term ‘fighting fuck toy’ for characters such as Croft in her outrageously impractical, undermining outfits. Ambitious, successful women are also treated particularly harshly; Andy’s success in her career costs her her partner, relationships and her sense of self worth.

Miss Representation also pointed out that the stories of the minuscule proportion of protagonists who actually *manage* to be female are almost always directed and written by men. Hence, the portrayal of the female experience is shifted into the bias of a male perspective which begs the question: how can the story of a woman which is written, developed and conditioned by men ever truly be authentic, or reach the *whole* population? A great example of this is the new Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, which, coincidentally, I went to see the day after the screening of Miss Representation. Screenplay: written by men. Directed: by a man. Protagonist: female. And yes, Katniss is supposed to be troubled, socially inept and distant by nature, but in Catching Fire she’s just… cold. Cold, at times vapid and a little cruel. As an audience member I was presented with a strong, brave, independent, intelligent woman which should have been thrilling for me, yet I COULD NOT empathise with her. She’s the best example of a female dominating a film in a long time… and I was rooting for her male co-star throughout.

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Something that the documentary touched on that we would perhaps like to have seen developed further alongside the misrepresentation of women is the analysis of role models for young men in the media. Interestingly, hours after watching Miss Representation a friend this clip of a discussion concerning male and female protagonists and the kinds of plots children are presented with in films targeting their age group:

Just as young women absorb messages about their appearance equating their value, so do men see their worth presented in physical prowess, in the car they own, in whether or not they’re a ‘stud’ or a sporting legend. Young people are impressionable; if we’re prepared to admit that young women are conditioned by the media into believing that their appearance is of greater worth than their accomplishments, should we disregard the fact that young men’s attitudes could be warped by their being exposed to multitudinous narratives portraying male protagonists who treat women as commodities? I think there’s scope for taking a step back and wondering if whether the resulting psychological infringement of women which is just accepted as a norm also seeps into the lives of men.

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Reviews

Back to Oblivion at the New Theatre, Nottingham

Matthew Miller’s Back to Oblivion is a highly domestic piece of theatre which charmingly epitomised the ethos of low budget, quality studio theatre. Set entirely in the living room of a young unmarried couple, Back to Oblivion explores the renewed relationship between two old schoolmates, Andy (Omid Faramazi) and Gary (Gary Berezin) who, after roughly a year apart following a dispute, have decided to settle their differences now that Gary and his partner of fifteen months have separated. Meanwhile, Andy claims to have “never been happier” since returning to his girlfriend Debbie (Amelia Gann), though as the drama unfolds, Andy’s joblessness and strong reluctance to prise himself from the comfort of his sofa (with the exception of popping to the kitchen for a can of larger) begin to suggest weaknesses and insecurities he has striven to conceal…

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Back to Oblivion was performed in one of the New Theatre’s smaller studio spaces, which was apt since the entire production was staged in a living room; presenting the piece in a more compact environment maximised the intimacy of action, plus the actors proximity to the audience meant that our attention was theirs for the entire performance of roughly an hour. The set, designed and built collaboratively by Miller, director Lilly Dawson, producer Ginny Lee and designer Tom Selves, had all the charisma and allure of a family home – until you spot the coffee table littered with larger cans, pizza boxes and tabbacco packets. Its dishevelled and squalid focal point offered a brutal contrast to the its homely features such as the ornament depicting the word “love” and the sofa in the centre – it suggested a kind if discordance that we see bled into the characters’ relationships and personalities, an indication of things not quite being what they seem.

The audience is welcomed in the moments preceding the opening lines of the piece by Faramazi, already in character, slumped down on the sofa watching TV, a number of gormless expressions at his disposal and a hand down his joggers with Amy Winehouse’s I’m No Good on as background. The resounding message is: Andy is your typical ne’er do well. Gary’s arrival onstage totally brings Andy to life; all of a sudden he’s animated, desperate to interact and monopolising the conversation as well as the movement and gesture. It becomes very clear that in the pair’s school relationship Andy was the outspoken, popular and manipulative party, while Gary was perhaps more the adoring fan who just felt lucky to be friends with the big shot.

Of all the three performances, for me, Faramazi’s was perhaps the strongest in the projection of his voice, his captivating and natural stage presence and truly authentic way moving around in his performance space. That is not to say that the other two actors didn’t show exceptional class and ability; first time actor Gary Berezin really grew into his role as the play went on and his characterisation was absolutely spot on as years of frustration slowly bubbled to the surface. I felt I didn’t get to see enough of Amelia Gann’s Debbie since her time on stage was relatively short, yet she portrayed a multifaceted character most effectively in the time she was given meaning her’s was the character I was able to empathise with most easily, and I was set ill at ease by how convincingly powerless she was to Andy’s manipulations.

All in all, a fascinating, resonating and captivating production which was just the right length to tell a highly relatable story and to sustain the audience’s interest throughout. It’s certainly one I won’t be forgetting in a hurry for its effortless everyday comedy and haunting final moments…

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Personal, Rants, Reviews

Lame Fresher Diaries: Pole Dancing

It’s been a weird month for pole dancing: A week or so ago it emerged that Swansea University banned its Pole Dance Society from running any longer, claiming that it validated a career in sex work; furthermore, I have decided to master the art.

To expand upon the former: in a bid to eradicate sexist attitudes towards it, the University of Swansea’s decision to ban the Pole Dance Society, to me, seems utterly ridiculous. In banning the society, surely, the University have applied a negative connotation to pole dancing which will, now, inevitably filter through and damage people’s perspectives of the art form. Hence, the University could arguably create a sexist attitude which, perhaps, didn’t even exist initially. Furthermore, a more common name for the activity is “pole fitness”; is not the notion of banning something design to improve your core strength and physical well-being by using your body to make weird, wonderful, often muscle-pulling shapes totally ridiculous? It’s like banning gymnastics.

And the latter: as a bit of a feministy, wannabe eccentric with an enthusiastic Fresher Complex, it seemed apt to try it after the Swansea controversy. And at £2.50 for a taster which included a sure fire way to transform my body into a graceful, mysterious piece of empowering artwork (which is so far removed from the amateurish swinging on a greasy pole in a club with your knickers on show), I was well up for it.

So there we were, a merry band of woman adventurers dressed to impress in slobby gym wear and our sights set on throwing some epic pole shapes and bent on oozing some kind of sexy, freedom-fighting, self-owning, strong woman warrior kind of vibe thing – especially since some of my peers had attempted to chastise me for wanting to try it. They deemed it “unclassy”, “slutty” and intrinsically linked to sex work, to which I retorted “It’s pole FITNESS, and my body is UNATTAINABLE and BENDY” and promptly flounced off.

The studio, Twisted Pole, turned out to be very well hidden about four floors up in a sort of apartment block, which, admittedly, did kind of add to the sense that it was a slightly illicit and transgressive undertaking. Upshot: it was bloody exciting!

We arrived at the studio already quite red faced, sweating and heaving from clambering up about 500 or so spiralling stairs in heavy winter boots and found a fairly busy hive of activity in the studio itself. For someone like me – a total stranger to dance, lacking grace and the ability to move in time to music – being in a studio in the initial quarter of an hour was a fairly alien experience, particularly when confronted with a wall of mirrors depicting mercilessly the extent to which my bits of skin were bursting out of my skimpy pole shorts, but after growing accustomed to the unshakable presence of my flab it was a pretty relaxed environment. The instructor and experienced members of the society began to demonstrate some moves and we were all absolutely ASTOUNDED by how strong they all were being able to support themselves and sustain such complex, beautiful and awe inspiring routines, all on something so insubstantial as a rod of metal. On watching them, I found you quite forgot the pole and all the connotations imposed on it by the patriarchy, and just took in the art unfolding before your eyes – not to mention the burning desire to replicate the shapes yourself.

As it turns out, after an hour of launching myself at a rod of metal – and discovering I have no upper body strength and turning my inner thighs bright pink through vain attempts to grip – pole dancing is hard, man. Really hard. In fact, far from the sexy, empowered, you-don’t-own-me-bro image I was going for, I have never felt less sexy. The number of bruises I acquired is phenomenal, as were the aching I felt in various muscles the next morning. However, this did prove that pole dancing is an excellent and social way to tone. Plus, when I finally mastered the ‘fireman’ and the ‘sundial’, the sense of satisfaction and achievement was basically unparalleled.

Rather than being some kind of really serious, controversial, topical activity, it was just a huge laugh for all of us, and ignited a wave of determination within me to work at it until I am an impressive, amazing, watchable pole dancer. Watch this space.

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